On a dark and rainy night in March each year, John Ogren and his loyal troops assemble at a secret location, ready and armed with raincoats, sharp eyes and flashlights. They stand ready and wait for a sign that it's time to begin their mission: to escort migrating spotted salamanders to automobile-free areas.
"The first rainy night in March usually brings the salamanders out of hibernation. They then move from the woods across the road to the vernal pools where they breed. They spend a couple of weeks in the pool and then return to the woods," Ogren says.
Ogren says that one banner year, he and a group of Boy Scouts carried and saved 400 salamanders; encountering 100 salamanders in a single evening is not unusual. As the leader of this annual scout project for the past 10 years, Ogren has earned the nickname of "Salamander Commander."
Although he earns his living running a company that builds rail lines and rail facilities, Ogren's passion and avocation is wildlife conservation and nature education. With a degree in wildlife conservation from Cornell University, he has pursued a life-long interest in birding and in wildlife observation and conservation.
"I grew up on a farm in Rhode Island and started making bird lists when I was 9 years old," Ogren says. "It's like an Easter egg hunt to identify and list birds you've seen."
When his son turned 8 years old, Ogren started taking him on birding excursions.
"Birding was a great activity to share," says Ogren. "My son and I have done the annual Audubon Society bird count day for the past 12 years. In Old Saybrook, it's on the first Sunday of January. The leader of the Old Saybrook team is Dr. Noble Proctor who was Roger Tory Peterson's best friend and now is the editor of Peterson's Field Guides."
John says the five- or six-member team routinely identifies 95 different bird species in Old Saybrook during the annual 12-hour count.
"You start in birding by getting to know all the common birds. Then for the small birds, you look for the type of beak they have. The biggest identification feature, though, is the sound of the bird's call," says Ogren. "The key to birding is to know what to look and listen for and when and where."
Ogren's next big project is to share his knowledge with the public by creating an Old Saybrook birding website that would show where to look for and find local and exotic birds-and when to go looking.
In addition to his bird and salamander work, John is also helping the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and academics from Sacred Heart University to tag horseshoe crabs in May and June when they come to the Old Saybrook beaches to lay their eggs.
"The horseshoe crab population has declined a lot, so it's time to collect and track them to develop data," says Ogren.
Horseshoe crabs are important to research efforts because their unique blood is used in blood testing.
Ogren's education and outreach work includes badge advising, trail maintenance projects (he's on the board of the Old Saybrook Land Trust focusing on open space land stewardship) and building and installing bat houses with scouts.
"Bats are a natural alternative to applications of pesticides: They eat 1,200 mosquitoes an hour. All bat houses should face south, be mounted 12 to 15 feet high on a wall or structure, and not be located in trees," Ogren notes.
For the same reason, Ogren just re-installed his own purple martin house. This colony of birds will eat thousands of flies and other insects each day.
Ogren and other Old Saybrook Land Trust members will be at the annual Old Saybrook Land Trust meeting on Tuesday, April 24, at 6 p.m. at the pavilion. Kirby Stafford, an entomologist, will speak about the 20 percent increase in the tick population this year and what to do about it.